Book Review: The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

Image Credit: Annelies Geneyn via Unsplash

Book Review by Jack Faulds

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin is a satirical thriller which follows successful photographer Joanna Eberhart and her family as they settle into the idyllic suburban neighbourhood of Stepford.

Tired of juggling her career and her relationship with her husband Walter, Joanna hopes that the white picket fences of Stepford will provide her some stability. However, though amiable enough, something seems a little… off… with the town’s inhabitants – particularly its women, who seem to resemble lobotomised 1950’s housewives. 

Amongst the hypnotised hausfraus of this peculiar Connecticut suburb, Joanna finds and befriends Bobbie Markowe – an independent (and therefore anomalous) woman – and they bond over the absurd sexism of Stepford’s Men’s Association. Together, they watch in bewilderment as the few free-spirited women of Stepford are transformed into mindless, vacuum-wielding zombies by the men of Stepford.

This novel was ridiculously fun, thrilling and easy to digest. Levin’s use of nuclear family imagery was equal parts camp and captivating, creating a lot of leeway for subtle satirical jabs at the issues we face to this day surrounding gender, patriarchy and conformity.

Joanna sticks out like a sore thumb in Stepford from the beginning, her headstrong and politically-informed character proving to be undesirable in a neighbourhood that is ruled by the American Dream. Whilst her family makeup is in line with that of a 1950’s household, her refusal to give up her career and be condemned to the domestic sphere makes her an immediate target, creating an engaging conflict which simmers in the background from the get-go. 

For me, Levin’s main goal with this story was to highlight how men employ women to do their dirty work, to break down and police other women. Published in 1972 at the height of the Women’s Liberation movement, The Stepford Wives was Levin’s absurd yet completely plausible proposal of how misogynistic men respond to the unrelenting call for equality that existed both then and now- as Morrissey would put it: ‘’unruly girls who do not settle down, they must be taken in hand.’’

Another thing I really appreciated about this book was how it touched on racism and the importance of intersectional feminism through the character of Ruthanne Hendry – the only black woman in Stepford. Levin makes an insightful commentary on race relations, particularly through the lens of Joanna and her whiteness: “She wanted to say something friendly and welcoming… but she didn’t want to be white-liberal patronising. Would she say something if the woman weren’t black?”.

Through some form of literary sorcery, Levin manages to discuss these various issues whilst keeping things light-hearted, making tongue-in-cheek remarks and continuing to build the suspense and mystery of the main plot. It’s a balancing act for sure, but it’s not wobbly or clumsy. Levin walks the tightrope with unmatched poise, unafraid to say what he means through this wacky work of satire that was undoubtedly ahead of its time.

Rating: 4 stars

**This story was originally published as part of our digital Freshers 2021 edition on 20/09/2021. Read the full edition here.**